‘Ebony’ and ‘Jet’ are our black family photo albums
Their legacy, survival and future are about telling black stories with our voice
Ebony was never just about journalism, not in that detached, just-the-facts way of the so-called mainstream media. It was the black family album, thick and glossy, where we got to see ourselves in all our glory, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Sidney Poitier, from Billie Holiday to Lena Horne. Ebony — and Jet — always took a side. Our side. No time to be neutral. When Jet published those pictures of lynching victim Emmett Till in his coffin back in 1955, it all but dared you to not to act: Let’s get this movement started. Quickly.
And so we did.
From the Montgomery bus boycott to the March on Washington to the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. to the rise of the Black Panthers, Ebony and Jet were there, chronicling African-American lives, always pushing our side of the story — one of the original For Us, By Us enterprises.
As Ebony’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Moneta Sleet Jr. once said, “I wasn’t there as an objective reporter. I had something to say and was trying to show one side of it. We didn’t have any problems finding the other side.”
Now, after 71 years in the hands of Johnson Publishing, Ebony and Jet have been sold to a black-owned private equity firm in Texas. (Fashion Fair cosmetics, and the Ebony photo archive, which is up for sale, will remain in the hands of the Johnson family.)
In many ways, it wasn’t a surprise: Both had been struggling for years in the midst of declining advertising sales and the slow, painful death of print. All too often, when you talk about Ebony, you talk about what once was, not what is. Jet went completely digital in 2014. Ebony lit up Twitter with its striking Bill Cosby controversy cover last fall, but not many were talking about it beyond the cover. In this post-civil rights, far from postracial era, Ebony no longer seemed relevant, more like something you’d pick up at your grandmother’s house for a hit of nostalgia.
“It’s very hard to carry that history and not start to look like a museum,” said Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan, who wrote about the travails of Ebony’s Fashion Fair cosmetics.
“It faces the same conundrum as the NAACP, where it is so connected to a particular way of fighting for equality,” Givhan said. “But when the tactics needed to change, others stepped in to take up the fight. I don’t know if you ever catch up. You can make yourself relevant again, but I don’t know if you can ever recapture that original voice and authority.”
Making of a mogul
Ebony and Jet were two sides of the same coin. Jet was where you got the news about black lives — and that which affected black lives, such as the maneuverings in the White House. (Of course, it was also where you got to see the Jet Beauty of the Week.) Ebony was where you went to see black achievement, to see black lives celebrated: to spend a day in the life of Lena Horne or Sammy Davis Jr. To learn a little about black history as seen through the eyes of Lerone Bennett Jr. To sneak a peek at a young black power couple, dancers Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, prancing around in leotards in their living room to the delight of their toddler son.
“I grew up on Ebony,” said Emil Wilbekin, the former editor in chief of Vibe magazine. “Ebony was definitely the magazine that shaped my perspective of being black in America, being black in the world.”
From the start, Ebony and Jet were always synonymous with Johnson Publishing, which is to say, they were synonymous with John H. Johnson, a onetime insurance agent who made himself a balling shot-caller out of sheer force of will.
He got things started with in 1941 with the modest The Negro Digest, launched the more aspirational Ebony in 1945 and Jet in 1951. And along the way, Johnson created an empire, gobbling up real estate and cable and radio properties, Fashion Fair cosmetics and the fabulously over-the-top traveling Fashion Fair runway shows. He launched syndicated TV shows, book and record subscription clubs and a book publishing company. Ebony and Jet were only two titles in the Johnson Publishing stable, which included Tan and Tan Confessions, Black World, Ebony Man, Ebony South Africa, Ebony Jr. and a “supersecret nudie magazine that was spoken about in hush-hush terms by the old dudes in the building,” remembered Eric Easter, who led Ebony/Jet’s digital push in the 2000s.
Visit Chicago back in the day, and it would be hard to miss the Ebony/Jet skyscraper insinuating itself amid the city skyline. He built that, so that his workers would have their own — and so that no one would forget that he built that. The man had an eye for detail: He had hot pipes installed under the sidewalk in front of the building so that no one had to worry about shoveling snow in the midst of Chicago’s notorious winters.
Working there “was like being in another world,” said Dudley Brooks, who served as Ebony’s photo editor from 2007-2015. “It was like going back to the ’70s; the building was totally ’70s retro. After a while, it grows on you and you learn to appreciate it. In a lot of ways, it was like going to the mecca for black publishing.”
And of course, you don’t build a black mecca without being …. controlling. Johnson served lavish lunches in the company cafeteria each day, the better to keep folks in the building, working. (For the privilege, employees would have a small amount, $2 or so, docked from their checks each week.) Each morning, Johnson would sit in the lobby, casting the side eye at anyone who came late to work. And if you tried to sneak in after nine, you’d have to sign a “tardy sheet” — a practice that continued after Johnson’s death in 2005, said Sylvester Monroe, a veteran journalist who came to work there as a senior editor in 2007.
“He was someone who I wish I could’ve worked with,” Brooks said. “But I would’ve probably been terrified.”
Victim of integration?
When it got its start, there was no other Ebony. There was no Essence, no BET, no Vibe or Honey or The Source. (Full disclosure: I once served as deputy editor for Essence.) Black entertainers weren’t getting any love from mainstream publications, and so Ebony had unfettered access to black celebrity lives. That, of course, changed, and Ebony eventually had to compete with other publications for black talent, both for black celebrities to profile and for black journalists to hire.
In 2000, Diddy, then Puff Daddy, agreed to do a cover shoot for Ebony. But he would do it only on one condition: No one else could be in the building, other than the photography team. No one could know that he was there.
Johnson cleared the building: He distributed envelopes to all his staff, envelopes stuffed with $10 and the instructions to go have lunch on Ebony and not to come back until after a designated time.
But by that time, Ebony didn’t have the same pull that it once did. Call it a sign of the times, or of dwindling resources. From time to time, Johnson Publishing would try to shake things up at Ebony, introducing a revolving door of black editors in chief, many culled from mainstream outlets. (Its latest editor in chief, Kierna Mayo, announced that she was leaving Ebony for another outlet shortly before the magazine sale went public. The magazine will be edited by Kyra Kyles, the vice president of digital at the publication.)
But now the market is saturated. Readers can read about basketball stars LeBron James and Stephen Curry anywhere, on ESPN, GQ, Time. In this era of social media, readers have a dizzying array of options, from natural hair vlogs to e-zines, to get their black news and culture, all just a click away.
“Ebony is a victim of integration like everyone else,” said Richard Prince, who writes about diversity in the media in his column, Journal-isms. “Ta-Nehesi Coates made his name writing for The Atlantic, not Ebony. They don’t need Ebony anymore.”
Ebony’s changes come at a time when all media, not just black media, is struggling. Clicks are king and folks are singing taps over print publications, and announcements of mass layoffs at major publications seem to come as quickly as news of new journalism startups. Times are volatile.
But don’t rule out Ebony just yet, said Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, a Chicago-based company that monitors African-American media, marketing and consumers.
Even today, Ebony pulls in 10 million readers each month, he said. A better question about whether Ebony will survive is will black readers get behind it and demand that advertisers support publications that reflect their lives, he said. Advertising keeps black publications alive. And without black media to chronicle African-American lives and interests, he said, “black America is doomed.”
“If newspapers are the first draft of history,” Smikle said, “then black magazines and newspapers are the archivists, making sure that the stories that need to get told are told.”